Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2002.
I judge many shows by how entertaining they are for Brandon, my thirteen year old son who is my most frequent theatre-going companion. I decided early on that he should be my date to The Scarlet Letter since he will undoubtedly have to read it very soon in school. He sat still and hung on every word of Carol Gilligan’s adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, and at the final curtain he pronounced the show “really good.” Of course, he was probably the only person in the theatre who didn’t know who Pearl’s father was, but even from my jaded adult viewpoint, this show was “really good” capturing the central human conflicts of Hawthorne’s tale and some of his heavy symbolism without becoming plodding or preachy.
I had been especially concerned about the latter because I had heard and read that Gilligan and director Tina Packer were putting a feminist slant on the story. Nathaniel Hawthorne never heard the word “feminist,” but he wrote a story about a woman who, by being set outside of Puritan society, is able to play a completely different role than that ascribed to women in Boston in 1650. Hawthorne was close to his own mother, who had recently died when he penned The Scarlet Letter, and his sisters, he had married one of the three Peabody sisters who were leaders during the “Flowering of New England” in the latter half of the 19th century, and he was already the father of one daughter. It is no wonder that our 21st century eyes perceive what we now call feminism in his writing.
Gilligan and Packer have wisely chosen to let Hawthorne write most of the dialogue and confine their additions to the theatrical rather than the literary realm. The result is a very pure, spare, and fast-paced telling of this tale which is so universal in its appeal that it cannot be confined by mere historical details.
The The Scarlet Letter centers on the classic human themes of living in community with each other and with God. Hester loves her daughter and her daughter’s father and will not reveal his identity out of that love. Her presumed-dead husband, Roger, is eaten up by the guilt of forcing Hester into a loveless marriage and the need for revenge on the man who has earned her love. Reverend Dimmesdale loves Hester but not more than he loves his position in society, and the guilt he feels at allowing her to bear the shame of their sin and the joy of raising their daughter without him brings him to an early death. Pearl sees her parents and the world she lives in with the uncluttered clarity of a child who has not yet been confined by the rules of society.
As Hester Prynne, Jennie Israel is everything warm and womanly. We often associate feminism with the absence or denial of femininity, which is an error. In the context of the story the scarlet “A” on Hester’s bosom stands for Adultery, but also for Able, and it is the unique abilities of women to create, nurture, and sustain life against all odds that Israel embodies.
As seven-year-old Pearl, the adult Kate Holland is very much the “elf-child,” as Hester calls her daughter. Costume designer Harry Johnson allows only Pearl to wear colored clothing, in sharp contrast to the Puritan greys and blacks of the adults. Hawthorne’s tale would be all greys and blacks itself without Pearl – there is something about having a child in the story that brings forth an innocent and open joy for God’s world which the adult characters have long since forgotten how to celebrate.
And so I liked the women better than the men in this production. Mary Guzzy and Catherine Taylor Williams round out the distaff side of the cast, appearing as “goodwives” and all the other female characters. Guzzy is a hoot as Mistress Hibbins, the truly liberated woman in the town. Sporting a brilliant yellow Elizabethan neck ruff and cuffs on her sober black dress and smoking a pipe, Guzzy provides a voice for Gilligan and Packer’s modern feminist thoughts.
Jason Asprey plays Arthur Dimmesdale with a little too much strength and not enough outward sign of mental anguish for my tastes. Gilligan and Packer’s one big theatrical invention has been to actually write Dimmesdale’s “election day” sermon, and Asprey delivers it with exceeding joy, although I was not at all convinced that Jonathan Croy as Governor Bellingham and Dave Demke as Reverend Wilson were really making much of an effort to stifle his unpuritanical take on the gospel message.
Michael Hammond lurks menacingly as Dr. Roger Chillingworth (aka Prynne), but for all that I never got the sense of him threatening or stalking Dimmesdale in his growing conviction that he is the man who has cuckolded him and fathered Pearl.
I understand that an earlier version of this show contained more extraneous subplots and was less spare and focused. As I said, the current version is very clean and true to Hawthorne, except for the epilogue, which I suspect is a lone remnant from an earlier draft of the script. It, too, is true to Hawthorne in that he wrote a concluding chapter to the book from which much of the last scene is drawn, but Gilligan and Packer have put his words into the mouth of an adult Pearl. In and of itself, this is a good idea, but why Pearl, who would have died well before the American Revolution, is suddenly depicted as a 21st century woman is puzzling and off-putting. For me it completely ruined my joy in the breath-taking beauty of the pieta tableau with Hester cradling the dying Dimmesdale on the scaffold that immediately preceded it.
Johnson’s scenic design is very simple and uncluttered, as Puritan society strove to be. A few moveable set pieces create scenes as varied as the scaffold in the marketplace, Dimmesdale’s study, a prison cell, and the forest. Karen Perlow’s lighting and Jason Fitzgerald’s sound design aid these swiftly changing illusions, although the music and Susan Dibble’s daringly angular choreography bring a sharp modern edge to the evening.
At this time of year many of the area theatre companies mount a production of a “classic” with purported educational value in the hopes of luring in school groups. This is the first such production that I’ve seen that makes me want to pick up the phone and call every junior and senior high school in the area and say “GO!! Book tickets now! Take the whole school!”
The Scarlet Letter runs through November 3 at the Founders’ Theatre at Shakespeare & Company on Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. Suitable for children 12 and older. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002